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Harmonious Convergence

New Century Chamber Orchestra
Kingmond Young Photography

No Handel for Them: The New Century Chamber Orchestra eschews holiday standards in favor of new work this December.

New Century Chamber Orchestra scores programming coup with Christmas premiere

By Daphne L. O'Neal

For a local new-music ensemble to host a world premiere of a new work at its season-opening performance is an event in and of itself. But when that same group can convince a world-class opera singer to come and perform with them at such an event, that's cause for celebration.

In just such a stunning confluence of events, the up-and-coming New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) has scored a major programming coup. World-famous mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade will perform at the group's premiere Dec. 13, and composer Jake Heggie will unveil the new piece, titled "On the Road to Christmas," he's written specifically for von Stade. This fortuitous convergence of talent came about as the result of a peculiar web of relationships centering on the 35-year-old Heggie, a gifted composer and musician who is on his way to becoming an international sensation.

A composer who writes mostly for the voice, Heggie has studied piano and composition with Ernst Bacon and Johana Harris as well as at the Paris Conservatory. It was Heggie's relationship with Emil Miland, NCCO first cellist, that kick-started the collaboration between the composer, the orchestra and the opera singer. "Emil said, 'Wouldn't it be great if, for the beginning of the fifth season of NCCO, we had our first guest artist?' " Heggie recalls. " 'And wouldn't it be great if it was Flicka [as von Stade is known to her friends] and you wrote a special piece for her?' "

A 15-member string orchestra that performs without a conductor, the New Century Chamber Orchestra is fast developing a reputation as one of the best chamber groups in the country, evincing a remarkable spiritual and musical unity in performance and in recordings. (Witness the orchestra's two CDs of works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Frank Martin.) And von Stade is a favorite of concert and opera audiences worldwide, with a one-of-a-kind voice to which verbal superlatives cannot do justice.

Heggie had met von Stade in L.A. and reconnected with her in 1994, shortly after relocating to the Bay Area, where he had first started composing in his late teens. Thirty-three years old at the time of his return, he had not written any music for five years. "Flicka was one of the first people I saw when I came back [to the Bay Area]," Heggie says. "She inspired me to start writing a lot. She even loaned me her grand piano, so I would have a good instrument to work on. And because of her faith and belief and her championing of my music, a lot of other people have paid attention."

When Miland first suggested a collaboration between his group, Heggie and von Stade, the composer was skeptical of the project's feasibility. "He brought this up in July, and I thought, 'There's no way this could happen so quickly,' " Heggie says.

But Heggie's pessimism proved misplaced. "Lo and behold, Flicka said, 'Yes, I would be interested in doing it,' " he says, still not quite believing this turn of events.

NCCO concertmaster Stuart Canin was also thrilled at the very prospect. "We could hardly believe our good fortune," Canin says. "This opportunity to have Jake compose a cycle for us and von Stade evince an interest in singing it--it's quite a coup for a young orchestra like ours."

Once the main pieces were in place, all that remained was for Heggie to actually write the new work, a task he accomplished with speed and aplomb. "It all moved forward very, very quickly and before I knew it, I had a 20-minute chamber orchestra piece to write," Heggie says of the composing experience.

The piece itself is a seven-song cycle of Christmas-themed poems set to music, with two of the songs employing text by von Stade herself. The concert will represent her debut as a poet/librettist. "I talked to Flicka a lot about what Christmas meant to her and what her favorite carols were, and I asked her to write a little bit of text," Heggie says. "Just any Christmas recollection that she had. So, she sent me a little paragraph that started off, 'When I was young, Christmas meant a ride to Mass in a Chevy with flannel seats,' and I thought, 'This is great.' So I pulled bits of her text and I set two songs, based on what she wrote.

"And I also thought, well, now, all of a sudden, this piece has become about journeys," he continues. "Holiday time often means transition or journey of one kind or another, and it's not always happy. So I decided to open the cycle with a poem by A.E. Housman called 'The Night is Freezing Fast.' It's a wistful poem, but it also invokes the inevitability of eternity, that things will always go on. I used a melodic reference to 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.' In fact, all of the songs feature melodic references to traditional carols. I have traditional tunes creeping into every one of the seven pieces in the cycle."

Aside from carols, the work also features a variety of musical influences. "It has everything from jazz and pop influences, to hints of Debussy, Britten and Vaughan Williams," Heggie says. "It also employs my love of counterpoint from Bach. So, it covers a lot of territory, but I think it's a very user-friendly piece."

The New Century Chamber Orchestra's season premiere takes place Dec. 13, 8pm at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness St.; admission $22. For tickets or more information, call 392-4400.

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From the December 1996 issue of SF Live

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